The FCA has fined five of the world's biggest banks. Photo: Flickr/Images Money
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Use today's record banking fine to put payday lenders out of business

Jumping the shark.

Today’s record £1.1bn fine imposed by the Financial Conduct Authority on five of the world’s biggest banks should not just disappear into the FCA’s coffers. George Osborne was quick out of the blocks this morning at 6am with a statement welcoming the record FCA fines on our banks over the foreign exchange rigging scandal. Unscrupulous bankers had tried to rig ‘the fix’, as it’s known, to pocket extra cash. Not good for London’s reputation, not least given Libor has already been tarnished.

Of the £1.5bn in fines, Osborne said: “I will ensure that these fines are used for the wider public good”. Given that some of those will be paid by the taxpayer owned RBS, there’s an element of us fining ourselves and then redistributing the cash elsewhere. The fine, imposed for the systematic rigging of the £3.5tn a day foreign exchange markets, should instead go to tackling another problem the FCA is grappling with: the high cost short-term credit market.  For earlier this week, the FCA also announced the new payday lending cap, with loan rates to be capped at 0.8 per cent per day of the amount borrowed. However, not only are there legitimate concerns that the rate remains too high, the move does nothing to spur the growth of alternative affordable providers people desperately need.  Given worries that the cap could lead to a significant shrinkage in the payday loan market with people resorting to illegal lenders, building an alternative network of providers is even more urgent.

We therefore believe that today’s £1.1bn should be used to capitalise and expand a network of such providers. Earlier this year, IPPR’s report, Jumping the shark set out a strategy for doing exactly that. We argued that regulation can reduce the damage done by providers of high cost consumer credit, but it is more effective at preventing harm than promoting good.  Alongside a tougher regulatory system, the UK also needs new forms of local, democratic finance that serve the needs of low- and middle-income households in the short term credit market, that otherwise risk being excluded.

To develop this network, we are calling for a new national institution – an Affordable Credit Trust - to be established with the remit of mobilising and capitalising a diverse range of local not-for -profit lenders. Affordable credit providers could draw down capital from the Trust and access technological infrastructure necessary to keep costs low, in exchange for offering affordable loans and operating in a democratic fashion, with borrowers becoming members of the institution. They could range from credit unions, housing associations to social enterprise providers and more, with the Trust encouraging innovation in how to service affordable, easy to use loans.  Moreover, providers should partner with institutions like local Post Offices or churches to ensure they operate at the heart of their community. 

To keep the system sustainable, lenders would be able to use as a last resort a repayment backstop mechanism similar to that employed with the DWP’s Budgeting Loan system, which consistently achieved over a 90 per cent repayment rate without placing the debtor in undue difficult.  We estimate that this in place, and with the right support, loans could be offered for as little as £3 for every £100 borrowed per month, compared to nearly £30 for the average payday loan.  In a time when household incomes continue to be squeezed, that difference can make all the difference.

However, we also know from past experience that the affordable credit market won’t grow on good wishes alone; it needs financial and technical support to get off the ground and compete with the payday lenders.  This is how it has grown in places like America, where one in three are members of a credit union.  If today’s fine by the FCA was used to capitalise an Affordable Credit Trust it could have the means to really turn the tide against high cost lenders, potentially offering up to 5 million affordable, manageable loans a year once the Trust and local provider networks are fully established, based on our previous research.

An Affordable Credit Trust capitalising affordable, democratic forms of finance captures the spirit of the times: it is about shifting capital and power away from the consumer credit industry and towards people and communities, giving them the means to build affordable alternatives to high cost credit.  It means shifting away from a reliance on cash transfers from the central state and towards rooting democratic forms of capital that allow people to be more assertive in standing up to markets where they dominate.  So on a day when the banks have been shown – yet again – to have little regard for the rules the rest of us have to live by, their fine should be used to help ensure those that need access to affordable credit are no longer alone. The £1.1bn fine should be used to help us jump the shark.

Mathew Lawrence is Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets @DantonsHead

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.